Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Did the Buddha have a teacher?

With acknowledgements to the author, Tom Ragland (see links under Gnostic Tom)

Gotama turned away from the Hindu teachers,but in a way he distilled their quest,
their purpose, their merging of Atman with Brahman, their quest for Nirvana,
he stripped off all the talks of gods and sacrifices and devotions and authorities
and rituals, let go of metaphysical speculation, let go of dogmatic assertions, let go of cherished ideas, and reached for the core of awakening within himself, or in spite of his conditioning and the mind games he had come to identify with.

Jesus turned away from the Jewish teachers, but in a way he distilled their quest,
their purpose, their bringing on the Messianic age, of envisioning a people merged
with God's will, on earth as in heaven, not to destroy the Torah but to bring it to
life in the heart, to channel God for the rest of humanity.

Today, perhaps, Christianity and Buddhism andall of the traditions of the past need to be turned away from, but the essence of the original quest must be somehow revived in a new and meaningful way that works for this generation.

What would Jesus do today? Would he sit in a church on Sunday and sing hymns?

What would Gotama do today? Would he sit on a pillow in a zazen session and breathe?

They were both about getting past the structures and formalities of religion
and learning how to make it real and meaningful and practical.

Monday, March 26, 2007

I just don't dare believe it's true!

Call me a silly, sentimental old bugger if you like, but doesn't this just bring a lump to your throat?

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Omar Ibn Sayyid, Moslem from the Futa Tora area of present-day Senegal, was captured in warfare and shipped to Charleston, S.C. in 1806/07, just before the abolition of the slave trade. He spent about 24 years enslaved in South and North Carolina.

There is something about this man's grave and serious aspect that reminds me of my father-in-law, Loti Matipa Mulumbi of Zambia, who died last year aged about 90.

Much has been written and said in recent days (during the bicentennial celebration of the Anti-Slavery legislation in UK) about the need to apologise (to the contemporary descendants of the slave trade) or otherwise to atone for wrongs perpetrated during the era of Transatlantic slavery, two hundred or more years ago.

I'm ambivalent about apologies two hundred years after the event, and I can't authentically identify with those that have been voiced (e.g. by Ken Livingstone, London Mayor), which is not to say that I disapprove of his having done so; I have no grounds for questioning his motives. His motives may be self-serving politics, or sincere regret; who am I to call them into question, who hardly knows his own?

What this brings up for me is a need to search my own heart for evidence of my own exploitativeness, bigotry and blindness to the oppression I visit on others, and their consequent suffering. Such evidence is elusive: as soon as I turn the searchlight of awareness on it, it scurries away loathsomely, like cockroaches when the light is switched on.

I am ever conscious of my own ingrained racism, notwithstanding my marriage of over 35 years to an African woman, my wife Berlina, and our having three children of mixed racial heritage. The best I can say is that I am aware of it, and how it operates. I wish I could honestly say that I have purged it, but that would be less than the truth; one can apologise from a position of incomplete truthfulness. "Sorry" is not always the hardest word.

Presence (of Mind)

“ Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
Nelson Mandela

By kind permission of the author, Michael Lewin:

Do we really know who we are, what we can achieve in life, what we can become once our real potential is tapped for the betterment of ourselves and others? Too often we restrict our personal growth, curtail our positive energy in order to become less than we could be. We can all spend so much time embedded in the same rigid patterns of habitual thinking. We can all carry on in our everyday lives unaware of the enormous, hidden capabilities that lie beneath the surface. Sometimes the realization that we could be much ‘ bigger ‘ than we are allows us to work slowly and steadily on a gradual path of self expansion. But there are other times, when we are in the moment, that we just have to act……

When a young student had a seizure on the New York Subway he collapsed and fell onto the track. The platform was full with commuters who looked on in shock at what had happened. Suddenly a bystander, without any regard for his own personal safety, jumped down onto the line to try and assist the young man. The crowd, who had gathered around in amazement, started to express their fear when a train was heard coming into the station. Our hero quickly assessed the situation. He just couldn’t leave the man there, in a seizure, knowing that death or serious injury was a likelihood so he laid on top of him, firmly holding him down in the central trench. The train driver had seen the two men and applied the emergency brakes, but two carriages had pasted over the men before the train finally stopped…..” We’re OK down here, “ our hero yelled, his head just millimetres from touching the underside of the carriage.

The father of the young student said afterwards: " Mr Autrey's instinctive and unselfish act saved our son's life, there are no words to properly express our gratitude and feelings for his actions." But Wesley Autrey would not accept this. He replied: " I don't feel like I did something spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help." Later he added: " I'm still saying I'm not a hero... 'cause I believe all New Yorkers should get into that type of mode….you should do the right thing."

Engaging with action that expands and enlarges us is doing “ the right thing,” finding our place in a ‘ bigger ‘ and better world of which we are a part. This might happen in a moment, a defining instant that changes someone’s life forever, as in the actions of our subway hero. At other times it is less dramatic, more incremental, more calculated but nevertheless still of value and significance. We are all ordinary individuals that contain the seed potential to perform extraordinary feats, if we only but realized. St Augustine said we were: “ Great deeps “ but that embraces the negative as well as the positive aspects of our psyches so the real challenge, the real test we must face is a choice: do we hold ourselves back in self –limiting, self-restricting ways that contribute to our diminishment or do we push forward to mobilize our passions and positive energies for the greater good? Do we live a life half awake, half engaged or do we live passionately, fully opened, fully attending so that we are made available for greater things? Perhaps we should ask our subway hero these questions.

[Copyright: Michael Lewin 2007]

Reading through Michael's piece (above) I noted the comment "But there are other times, when we are in the moment, that we just have to act……" and my quibble would be that there's no "have to" about it: it's more an instinctual act devoid of "self" (and thus unselfish). For me unselfishness (a Christian concept) means intentionally and willfully setting aside self-interest, i.e, "sacrificing" or "subordinating" one's own interests to, or in favour of, another = altruism. I don't think our eponymous hero did that, indeed he disavowed doing so. Like many before him, he says "I only did what anyone would have done". Surely he didn't have time to do the ethical calculation in his head? He just acted out of pure "presence of mind", thus NO self in the way of pure action, and certainly NO heroism. I've acted the same way myself (admittedly not jumping on to railway lines) on a few occasions in the course of my nursing work, but also once when my baby daughter stopped breathing. My response to the emergency came before my mind was even engaged, hardly in gear! My mind caught up with the act, as it were, after it had taken place.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Prayer flags

About this time every year I put up prayer flags around the Goble home, with the permission of my family, whose home it also is. Prayer flags are so gay, so enlivening, I find them irresistible, although I confess that I am hazy about their spiritual significance. Having said that, I do handle them with care and with what passes for reverence chez moi, having been made aware that a failure to do so can offend people of devout belief. When they're installed I will post a photo of them, but presently I'm waiting their delivery from Wisdom Books ~ fine on-line suppliers of Buddhist artefacts as well as books.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Mothers' Day

In recognition of Mothers' Day, and mindful of mothers everywhere, an image of Kwan Yin (Avalokiteshvara). When I visited prisons as Prison Chaplain, Women prisoners were very fond of seeing the Kwan Yin rupa on our shrine.

Kwan Yin (also spelled Kuan Yin or Quan Yin and known as Kuan Shih Yin), is known as the Goddess of Compassion & Healing. She is said to be one of the most popular deities in all of Asia. Her name in Chinese roughly translates as "The One who Hears the Cries of the World". As possibly the most beloved and revered of the Chinese dieties, Kwan Yin is described as "the Divine Mother we all long for: merciful, tender, compassionate, loving, protecting, caring, healing, and wise". In Asia, statues of Kuan Yin can be found in front of, or on the grounds of, many Buddhist temples.

Just as Catholic Christianity has provided an antidote to pure theological patriarchy by encouraging the reverence of the Virgin Mary, so Chinese Buddhism evolved a feminine bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be, named Kuan Yin. And just as Mary captured the hearts of Catholic worshipers, so Kuan Yin has far outstripped the male bodhisattvas in popularity, especially in Taiwan. Both in Japan (as Kwannon, who is often pictured as male) and in pre-revolutionary China, this semidivine being was honored in virtually every home; she was the most powerful being in the entire Chinese pantheon.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Paintings 2007 - Michael Lewin Exhibition

There will be an exhibition of Michael's paintings at The Changing Room Gallery, Lloyd Park/Aveling Park (in the London Borough of Waltham Forest), from 24-28 April 2007.

For further information please mailto:lewinmick@hotmail.com
The painting displayed above is taken from Mick's portfolio (with kind permission of the artist).

Friday, March 16, 2007


Up to Kagyu Samye Dzong http://london.samye.org in Lambeth last Sunday at the invitation of Kitty D'Costa and the recently formed Bardo Group there. This group has been established to supply support for people who are seriously ill or dying: Kitty had heard me talk about the work of our Trust at a meeting in Bristol, so this was an opportunity to share experience.

When I arrived everyone was busy in the Shrine Room, making small mandalas under the guidance of Ven Lama Gelongma Zangmo, Abbess at Kagyu Samye Dzong. I was invited to watch. An unusual (for me) reticence came over me, and I sat at the end of the hall, a converted Primary Schoool assembly-room, gazing out over the twenty or so people squatting on cushions, working with scissors, gum and paper at small manadalas. These, Kitty told me, were dedicated to the merit of the maker and to the merit of another person. Traditionally, these mandalas are placed on the corpse of a deceased person.

As I sat looking out at the scene, I was strangely moved by the counterpoint of individual details of what was going on, to the whole. My eye was drawn to someone's hands manipulating a piece of paper here, the snippping of scissors there; somewhere else a look of concentration, elsewhere a look of reverie; Lama Zangmo moved around quietly, moving something or looking over someone's shoulder. At the same time there was a sense in me of the integrity, purposefulness and gentle human industry of the whole, so that it had the quality of a mandala in itself. It steadied and supported me, and I am grateful that I had the chance to participate in this lovely work.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Lenten Talk (originally posted 03 March)

It was quite intriguing to be invited by email to give an evening talk on 'Buddhism' to parishioners of the (Roman Catholic) Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Sawbridgeworth, Mid-Essex, on behalf of the Buddhist Hospice Trust. I may have mentioned before that our website acts as a kind of funnel for enquiries and invitations from all over the world as well as locally, some frankly bizarre, but all needing some level of scrutiny and attention, lest human need go unanswered by my own heedlessness or judgementalism.

Fr Niall Harrrington, the Parish Priest, told me that he thought his parishioners might like to have guest speakers talking on broader topics than his usual weekly Lenten menu, and that something as unusual as Buddhism might be a good curtain-raiser for a pre-Easter series on 'other faiths', as well as being spiritually worthwhile. The warmth of his invitation made it hard to decline, so I joined him last Wednesday in his priest-house for 'warm winter soup' (duly blessed, both the soup and me), and for congenial conversation.

I expected a gathering of about a dozen (it was a cold, wet and blustery February evening) but at 7.30 pm the hall was still filling, and I was introduced to a congregation of more than fifty people of all ages, including a few school-age children. I took a few "visual aids", including a rather splendid framed print of the Medicine Buddha (that's him above) who, I reckoned, being a magnificent shade of deep indigo blue, might draw a question or two (he did).

The talk seemed to go down well, although I did feel a certain pressure to 'perform', and spoke rather too fast and too long (I thought); but questions after a tea-interval were still coming after half an hour, and continued round my chair after Fr Niall rang his end-of-business bell. Donations to the Trust's funds were in excess of £50, and all the copies of Raft and "Buddhist Reflections" were taken up.

I would be so pleased if I could call on your support in responding to invitations like this, and please read this blog regularly to see where you might contribute your services as a guest speaker on the Trust's behalf, or as an occasional delegate to a meeting, or working-party (see Chaplaincy Collectives, Charity Commission etc below)

Buddhist Conflict Resolution

Someone introduced me recently to a newly created weblog devoted to Buddhism & Crisis Resolution and I found the introductory 'mission statement' of the authors persuasive enough for me to sign up to it:

"The guest authors conceived this weblog as a consequence of their personal difficulties in applying Buddhist principles in situations involving the resolution of conflict.

We aim for this weblog to be a source of guidance and inspiration for those people following the dharma who seek to resolve confict situations. Effective resolution is characterized by finding an agreement between two opposing ideas which engenders commitment, avoids harmful emotions and actions, and safeguards principles and relationship.

This weblog has been created to present material and information on conflict resolution from a Buddhist perspective. This is a new project that we have just started and so there is very little information on it at the moment."

As I read this, what sprang to my own mind at once was the knot of conflictual feelings generated in me by the recent UNICEF announcement about the unhappiness of British children (and inevitably, by association) the corresponding deep, impotent concern of their parents; for what parent, however feckless or ill-served by the skill and intelligence needed to parent adequately, would not at some level be aware of, and grieve over, that unhappiness? And agonise over how to mitigate it?

Spirituality & Mental Health

We were recently involved in planning and delivering a conference on Spirituality and Mental Health, sponsored by two Primary Care (Mental Health) Trusts in Essex and Interact, a mental health charity with Christian roots. It was attended by over 250 delegates, made up of faith communities (predominantly Christian groups and clergy), mental health service-providers (NHS and not-for-profit), mental health professionals (mainly doctors and nurses), and a sprinkling of 'service-users'.

The purpose of the coference was to develop an agenda of 'do-able' things that would progress the potential benefits that psychiatrists and others believe spirituality may bring to health, including mental health.

Amongst other considerations, the question arose of what consititutes good quality spiritual care; and related to that, the issue of how it might be practicable to conduct some form of "spiritual needs assessment" as a preliminary step in providing spiritual support to those who wanted it.

How might health professionals be enabled to recognise and assess the religious and spiritual aspects of a person's life? And what might the components of spiritual health care look like? Some might think that even to pose questions like this is a bureaucratic step too far. On the other hand, one might argue, inaction does a disservice to those for whom, whilst not necessarily holding formal religious beliefs, the spiritual dimension of experience is at the heart of what it means to be human, to have a deep-seated sense of meaning and purpose, and is identified with acceptance, integration and wholeness.

According to one source, "The spiritual dimension tries to be in harmony with the universe, strives for answers about the infinite, and comes especially into focus in times of emotional stress, physical and mental illness, loss, bereavement and death".

Buddhist Nurses' Interest Group

In recent months we've heard from several nurses, some qualified and some in training, for whom Buddhism has a particular relevance in their work with seriously ill and dying people, and who would like to explore Buddhist philosophy and practice in company with like-minded others, especially other nurses and care-givers. The Trust's relationship with and appeal to hospice professionals is nothing new of course; the Trust grew out of a synergy experienced by its founders, Ray Wills and Dennis Sibley, with the UK hospice movement which, at the time of the Trust's establishment, was both gaining wider recognition and beginning to frame wider policy on palliative and end-of-life care in the UK, based on the seminal contribution of Dame Cicely Saunders and St Christpher's Hospice

We are in the process of consulting with others on how best to and promote a Buddhist Nurses' Interest Group, and invite anyone with an interest in, or ideas for, this project to contact us, so we can take it forward.

Although the provisional title might sugggest a certain 'exclusivity', the proposed group might well include non-professional care-givers other than nurses, and would almost certainly welcome involvement by people who, while interested in Buddhist perspectives, were not fully "signed up to" Buddhism, or were not symapathetic to the religious context in which Buddhism is usually perceived as operating.

Monthly Meetings

Since 1991, Trust supporters and volunteers who live in and around London have gathered monthly for meetings of the Inner Work School, a peer-to-peer forum established by Ray Wills for the exploration of Buddhadharma in daily life, without the direction of an accredited Buddhist teacher or spiritual guide.

Ray's vision was for a self-sustaining community or sangha of ordinary men and women, "living in the now" as he put it, sharing spiritual companionship, and building capacity to bring the dharma to all sentient beings.

Ray died in 2001, and the school has continued since his passing, having moved from its first home in the Hop Gardens off St. Martin's Lane to YMCA International House (now leased off to an American University), then the Indian Students' YMCA in Fitzroy Square; we are now lodged in the rather marvellously modish Central YMCA Club a stone's throw from Tottenham Court Road Underground.

Everyone is welcome without formality, and you can attend when you like and are able to. We work to "an open agenda", relying for inspiration and impetus on the Power of Now (Eckhart Tolle ,who wrote a book under this title, was one of Ray's five most influential teachers) so there is no loss of continuity if you can't come.

Meetings are on the second Saturday in each calendar month throughout the year, from 1 pm until 4.pm.

You can get more information from me by posting a comment to that effect here.
Several painful hiccups and false dawns later, another fresh start. We're beginning to get the hang of things (my eldest son has also started his own backpacker's blog and we're helping each other out with the technicalities).

I intend this blog to combine news items on Trust affairs with some reflective stuff that casts light on what we are actually doing, in a worthwhile, readable mix. I also hope it attracts comment, because that's the whole point of it: dialogue, debate, discussion; sharing ideas, experience, aspirations.

Yesterday I attended my first meeting at a "Chaplaincy Collaborative" (CC), at the invitation of Rev. Susan Hollins, who coordinates CCs in the East of England. Chaplaincy Collaboratives are an initiative aimed at bringing isolated Hospital Chaplains together, to strengthen their effectiveness, and to develop new coalitions of interest with 'the willing' from other disciplines, like medicine, nursing and patient/client groups.

Yesterdays meeting was concerned with devising a way to quantify the effectiveness of hospital chaplains, against the background of financial deficits affecting many NHS Trusts, and the need for 'efficiency savings'.

Why was I invited? Well, the Trust is often invited to such events, and I guess it's partly because we have a prominent web presence, and maybe because we have a longish history of engagement in health issues, and possibly because our 'catholicity' carries an (unclaimed and unmerited) sense of our being somehow representative of UK Buddhism as a whole (though I carefully disavow any such status at the first opportunity to do so).It was an interesting meeting, and we devised an early draft of an 'audit instrument' to capture data from patients on the effect of chaplaincy interventions, through five simple face-to-face questions, administered to ready-for-discharge patients by a neutral volunteer. I think my being a nurse made my presence useful to the group, even though it was my first encounter, as they were all ordained clergy, and somehow "in awe" of clinical staff.

But it is still true (I believe) that clinicians (doctors and nurses) are seen, and see themselves, as more indispensible, more top-of-the-heap, than other cadres in the NHS. Although, increasingly, it is the despised "number-crunchers" and "bean-counters" who call the shots, hence the drive for audits of effectiveness, and maybe a reason for Chaplaincy Collaboratives, a kind of defensive 'circling of the wagons' against imminent attack.